Indonesia needs to redirect the ASEAN Community

Indonesia will hold the ASEAN chairmanship position next year. Its leadership bears responsibilities for demanding tasks, such as ensuring the ASEAN centrality among multi actor’s interests in the region and garnering support to take serious actions on Myanmar’s military violence. These high political issues certainly push Jakarta to spend its energy managing relations with member states as well as external partners. Despite all government-to-government interactions, Indonesia as a chair should also focus on putting the Southeast Asian people at the heart of ASEAN.

ASEAN’s citizens are often overlooked in the context of regional politics. They tend to be an object rather than taking an active role as an integrated community under  ASEAN spirit. For instance, most Southeast Asian youth associate themselves as ASEAN citizens, yet currently they are less critical on crucial issues in the region, such as Myanmar coup d’etat. Since the coup took place, thousands of Burmese have taken to the street to protest military ruling. Unfortunately, this social movement does not receive much attention from society in neighbouring countries as concerns about Myanmar are less visible there. Thus, it is the right time for Indonesia to increase people’s political participation and make the bloc becomes more than just an intergovernmental organization.

Why people-centered ASEAN is needed?

The regional grouping recognized the importance of common people as stipulated in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025. Focusing on society as one of the Indonesian priorities in its chairmanship will be aligned with the ASEAN visions. This helps the bloc to achieve its long-term target under the socio-cultural pillar. ASEAN’s ambitions to embrace an integrated community of people indicate that society has a significant position in the organization.

Concern for the citizens is also parallel to reaffirming the ASEAN identity. The Narration of ASEAN Identity (NAI) document, adopted in November 2020, became the basis of implementation on the concept of ASEAN identity. Yet it is still a huge task for the member states to bring ASEAN identity into reality. Under its chairmanship, Indonesia may incorporate the identity aspect into the development of community roles. Rebuilding the sense of ASEAN-ness is an initial step to bond Southeast Asian citizens. Thus, identity matters in pushing people to engage in region-related issues.

People’s active participation will contribute in a positive way towards transparency of political process at national and regional level. Some crucial issues can be under the spotlight once citizens bring them into online platforms and media may follow up on this matter. Social media are examples of powerful tools utilized by grassroots to grab attention from a wider scale. This can be seen from the case of Myanmar coup d’ etat. Despite continuous violence and pressure from the military junta to this date, people have been using social media to organize the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) since the beginning of crisis which also triggers solidarity from international community.

Unfortunately, responses from Southeast Asian citizens are not significant. Actions taken towards situation in Myanmar were primarily channeled through government. Social movements under the banner of “the ASEAN Family” remain invisible. Lacks of support from grassroots for suffering Burmese indicates a contradictory meaning of the ASEAN Community. Weak attachment to a collective identity might be the primary cause of low attention from ASEAN citizens.

For instance, in Indonesia, citizens have responded differently to Myanmar problems. A few years back, Indonesians strongly opposed genocide and mass killing of the Rohingyas. People consistently protested these violent acts. Even thousands of them were taking to the street to voice their concerns about the Rohingyas well-being. Nevertheless, less support has shown toward Myanmar people when it is being suppressed by the military today. The different approaches by Indonesians show how the identity concept plays a role. Support for the Rohingyas was associated with Islamic solidarity―as Indonesia is known as the biggest Muslims majority country in the world― and not related to the “we-feeling” as part of ASEAN Community.

Can Indonesia lead the ASEAN Community?

One year chairmanship period is surely not enough to create a well-integrated community. However, this precious opportunity can be utilized by Jakarta to set the base for direction of the ASEAN Community in the future. The ASEAN Charter has also mandated that one of the chair’s responsibilities is to “actively promote and enhance the interests and well-being of ASEAN, including efforts to build an ASEAN Community…”. Frequently regarded as a defacto and natural leader of the regional bloc, Jakarta may use its extensive experiences in “the ASEAN Way” to redirect the ASEAN Community under its chairmanship.

For initial steps, the government should strengthen the Community’s role by mainstreaming the concept of ASEAN identity. Jakarta can implement similar strategies in its G20 presidency, such as the involvement of youth in this agenda to ensure that the ASEAN identity can reach the grassroots. Massive socialization on the ASEAN Identity will be helpful to build a sense of belonging to ASEAN which expectedly results in the formation of a proactive ASEAN Community.

Rifki Dermawan
Rifki Dermawan
Rifki Dermawan is a lecturer in international relations at Universitas Andalas, Indonesia. He obtained his master’s degree in international relations at Bristol University, the United Kingdom. His research interests are in the area of ASEAN studies and non-traditional security issues.